Friday, November 20, 2015

What Feels Fair?

One day this week, before children arrived at the school, I set out a provocation of buttons, beads, and stones, along with lidded jars and palettes.  Looking at this simple set up, I envisioned these materials inspiring sorting and matching work among the children who were soon to arrive in our classroom.  What I didn't know yet was that this work was going to be about what it means to share.

LT was the first child to enter the classroom.  LT loves to work with the screw-top jars I had set out, and is often drawn to this sort of work, so I had a feeling she might be interested in this provocation.  She sat right down and began her work of sorting and rearranging materials.  Beads were sorted by color in the palettes and stones and buttons were poured into jars and covered with lids.

LS was the next child to arrive, and after catching her teachers up on her morning and washing her hands, she joined LT at the platform.  LS watched LT for a bit and then gestured to the palette where LT had put the purple beads.  

LS: "I want that."
LT: "No, I'm using that, LS.  It's not available.  You can have these stones."

LS picked up the jar of stones and considered them.  She forcefully shook her head.

LS:  "No, LT.  I don't want the stones.  I want the purple beads."

Throughout this interaction, I sat nearby, actively listening but not intervening.  I offered support to both children by reiterating what they had told each other ("LS is hoping to use some of these materials, too."  "LT is offering you those stones."  "Hm, it sounds like the stones don't work for LS.").  I saw my role as being there to assist with communication as needed, to offer support to both girls as they maneuvered the tricky situation of both wanting the same things at the same time.  My role was not to offer solutions, but to be a supportive presence as the girls worked on finding a solution that worked for everyone.

The girls looked at each other from across the platform for a few moments.  Then LT got an idea.  She asked me to bring an additional palette to the platform and then announced:

LT:  "Okay LS, I will make a palette for you!"

Slowly and methodically, LT doled out each purple bead into a palette just for LS.  LS was delighted by the element of play that LT had brought into this exchange, and when LT handed the palette to LS a few minutes later, LS thanked her with a grin.  Both children returned to their play, pleased and satisfied with the outcome of their negotiations.

OP was the next child to arrive that morning.  He sat down next to LT, saw that the jar of stones was not being used, and immediately got to work sorting them between several small metal bowls.  Both LT and LS made space for OP when he sat down, slightly scooting and moving their own work so he could join them - a silent and maybe subconscious negotiation of space to welcome a friend to their work.

The events of that morning led me to thinking about my own adult interpretation of sharing, and especially the concept of fairness.  I could have intervened, dividing up each material between the LS and LT in a way that felt fair to me - each child ending up with an equal amount of beads, buttons, stones, and jars.  That would have interrupted their play, most likely left both children unsatisfied, and also imposed my own adult idea of what is fair onto them.  Although LT started out wanting all the purple beads to herself, given time and space she felt flexible about sharing them, in her own way and in her own time.  LS didn't change her mind about what she wanted, but she was patient and engaged in the process of finding a solution with LT.

Our practice at Tumbleweed of not enforcing rules about sharing or fairness asks children to look inside themselves to find ways to coexist in the same spaces, using the same materials, in ways that work for everyone.  While these skills of negotiation, listening, flexibility, empathy, and patience are built and honed in low-stakes interactions like this, they are lifelong skills which are applicable in so many other situations.  We hope to build a foundation of these skills that the children will take with them for years to come.

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